AIMS To explore public health nursing consultations by providing reflections on the overt interaction between public health nurses, parents and young people during consultations. BACKGROUND There is limited research on public health nursing strategies and intervention models. There is a need to observe and describe the content of public health nursing work. DESIGN The study has an ethnographic design and this article focuses mainly on the observations. METHODS Five consultations at four different child health clinics, six consultations at two health clinics for young people and one consultation at the school public health nurse's office were observed. The sociological concept of role formats provides the analytical focus for the paper. RESULTS There are differences between the overriding ceremonial order in the public health nursing consultations observed in this study and the dominant role format observed in Sociologist P.M. Strong's study of medical consultations. Gentility can be a common denominator, yet ease and focus on everyday issues seems consistent with public health nursing consultations. The 'personal professional format' seems to be the correct term for the overriding ceremonial order. CONCLUSION The outward show of behaviour in nursing and medical consultations differs. Despite society's increased bureaucracy within health care systems, ease and a personal professional approach, not a rigid bureaucratic format, seems to be the dominant ceremonial order in public health nursing consultations. RELEVANCE TO CLINICAL PRACTICE This study is relevant to clinical nursing practice as it can create awareness of the taken-for-granted subtleties in nursing consultations. The findings show the continued need for supportive universal services that focus on the everyday needs of parents, young people and families. The findings also reveal the need for further studies on the moral underpinnings of public health nursing practice.